I am always happy to land in Cairo, and perhaps I was especially so a few days ago after enduring my first full winter in the Pacific Northwest (last year I had the sense to decamp to Egypt during the Christmas break). My new home’s constant rain and my hovering near zero levels of Vitamin D just about did my head in, a fact that seems even more clear as the contrast of Egypt’s sun and animated voices seems to have restored a good amount of my health and cheer in short order. But beneath the surface here in Egypt lies an undercurrent of anxiety. Youth who since 2011 would gather in cafes to expound excitedly about politics are subdued, avoiding the topic, focusing more on the ebbs and flows of their personal lives. It’s understood that you no longer discuss politics — or if you do, you revert to the coded, sarcastic language that’s been honed to a fine art over long years of military rule. Everyone understands what everyone is saying, even when they’re saying the opposite of what they mean. It’s the plausible deniability that keeps one safe.
I’ve always felt fortunate that the life worlds I interact with in Egypt are very diverse, and despite the chill on political speech, the polarization of these opinions seems even more hardened. I’ll recount two at different ends of the spectrum. The first is a younger voice that is devastated by the revolution’s failure and the rise of a security state more vicious than they’ve ever seen. It used to be that the most one feared was being roughed up in a police station for a few days then released; today one fears being disappeared or killed. Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student found murdered and mutilated in a ditch outside Cairo has inspired international outrage, making up another data point in the generalized depression. Regeni’s horrifying murder also begs the question: what about the thousands of disappeared Egyptians? Nepotism and corruption continue unabated, prices are much higher, with increases of up to 150% or more of basic staples over night, and the future seems uncertain.
The other end of the spectrum is the old guard military ruling class, who look at Egypt as a chess piece in an ever increasingly dangerous chess board. They too have acute anxiety, but not about what they might call “so-called human rights”, because they believe they have bigger fish to fry: the pound has been severely devalued and will continue to depreciate, the price of oil has plummeted, affecting the generosity and largesse of Gulf states who have been supporting the current government; Ethiopia is building a dam for the Nile which would be very dangerous for Egypt, and there is the ever present challenge of controlling the jihadist insurgency in Sinai. And there is always the specter of Syria and Iraq and now Libya: examples of what happens when strong arm Arab governments suddenly collapse. No one is interested in that outcome. One wonders why this litany of existential concerns somehow means that the state has the “right” to oppress, disappear and murder its citizens, and this means that we outside observers somehow have a duty not to comment on that oppression. The answer to that question might hold the key to Egypt’s essential weakness; a fundamental lack of concern for the human rights, welfare and freedoms of its citizens. This is a deep cultural problem, a moral and ethical problem, and one that I continue to believe can be solved only by Egyptians themselves.
Another point is made by the hard nosed old guard: why does the Untied States, with all of its problems, human rights abuses around the world, support for Israel’s unmitigated oppression of Palestinians, and internal racism, focus on Egypt? One answer is: they don’t, as much as some here think. The next question: what do the intellectuals seek to gain by complaining about Egypt to the west? And I confess that I truly do not know the answer to that question, and never have.
Take, for example, the steady stream of calls to end all military aid to Egypt. I won’t link to these articles, but suffice it to say that all you have to do is regularly read the Washington Post editorial page to get a flavor, though the opinion is a fairly popular one in academia as well. Their plot lines are the same: Egypt is a major human rights abuser (true) the main abuser is the military (mostly true, but these commentators have a habit of conflating all of the branches of Egypt’s security forces including the military and then decontextualizing the lot from a genuine Islamist insurgency in a region undergoing a campaign of systemic catastrophic destruction such as Syria to the east and Libya to the west), and therefore, the logic goes, US military aid to Egypt should end. What goes unsaid, and what I long to understand is: then what? They never say — and that strikes me as extraordinary.
Egypt’s military is currently holding the country together, however badly. The question is: what happens if they stop and the government collapses? The only answer to this question that follows from rational analysis is: no one knows, but it would probably get worse. Possibly, much worse. Another possibility – and I can only guess at what these commentators want from an end to military aid, since they don’t tell us — is that the Egyptian security regime changes its ways so they can continue to get aid. A shaming strategy. (This is nothing but a thought experiment, of course, as the US will not withhold aid so long as they are interested in upholding the Camp David Accords, but it is worth considering as a possibility.) Are the security forces capable of being shamed? The evidence would suggest that a sense of shame is not in abundant supply. Furthermore, they’ll just pivot to Russia, as they’ve already made clear.
It’s dispiriting to see scholars of Egypt join this fray, if not only because their expertise is sorely needed to properly analyze realistic steps forward for Egypt. It’s just much harder to do this then to stake a public position against human rights abuses, which is a very easy position to take (for the record, I take it too!) But I continue to feel uncomfortable with the relentless, often poorly thought through criticism of a weak country to a hyper- powerful and rich country full of people in positions of power who in many cases simply do not respect and do not like Arabs and Muslims a priori and in any case have no respect for their sovereignty, and proved this indisputably when they invaded Iraq.
And on that note, by way of departure, I’ll share what both sides of the spectrum wonder with absolute astonishment: what in the name of God is going on with America and Donald Trump?